New Zealand Committed to Working Closely with SL – Appleton
New Zealand High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Michael Appleton speaks to Ceylon Today about Ahamed Samsudeen, a Sri Lankan refugee responsible for the Auckland Countdown stabbing spree, in which six persons were wounded. Police shot and killed the attacker when he attempted to charge at them. Samsudeen was a supporter of the Islamic State terrorist group. The Sri Lankan Government has collaborated with New Zealand authorities in the investigation. Appleton, who assumed duties as the High Commissioner to Sri Lanka in July 2021, previously served in New Delhi, India (with responsibility for Sri Lanka).
He said, “New Zealand is committed to working closely with all of our international partners, including Sri Lanka, to counter terrorism and address the root causes of violent extremism. When it comes to security collaboration, one of the purposes of the newly established New Zealand High Commission in Colombo is to ensure that the security systems of our two countries work as closely together as they can and should. We will be working hard with our Sri Lankan partners to make sure that happens.”
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Is New Zealand under attack by religious extremists or are these isolated incidents as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said?
A: New Zealand has always been a multi-faith society, and by and large our different religious communities have participated freely in one of the most diverse, inclusive and safe societies in the world. That includes the significant, and growing, Sri Lankan community which greatly enriches New Zealand society. Sadly, New Zealand has had two prominent terrorist incidents carried out by individuals subscribing to violent extremist ideologies in the past several years. But they do not define New Zealand. We are by and large a very peaceful society, which is strengthened by our diversity.
How many Sri Lankans are living in New Zealand?
A: Sri Lankans have been migrating to New Zealand for decades - and based on our most recent census, there are around 17,000 Sri Lankans in New Zealand at this time. That’s a three-fold increase on the start of this century. How many have claimed asylum from Sri Lanka? A: As a general policy, the New Zealand Government, for a range of legal and other reasons, doesn’t comment on where people claiming asylum in our country have come from.
Can you explain why the knife attacker, Ahamed Samsudeen wasn’t deported to Sri Lanka, despite many attempts by the New Zealand Government?
A: Immigration New Zealand had been trying to deport the attacker since February 2019. As is true in many countries, some legal aspects of New Zealand’s refugee process are decided by a independent tribunal the New Zealand Government – in this case the Immigration and Protection Tribunal. At the time of the attack, the individual was in the process of appealing the deportation notice served by the Government. While the case was under appeal it was not legally possible to deport the individual.
The family of the knife attacker said they were aware of their son being radicalised. Did your government ever contact the man’s family in Sri Lanka or overseas, through government channels to check about him?
A: We won’t be commenting on any contact between New Zealand authorities and the man’s family.
With this knife attack and previously the Christchurch attack, there seems to be a lapse in national security in New Zealand?
A: Ensuring the safety and security of New Zealand will always be our paramount concern. We are committed to learning from these tragic incidents and doing everything we can to strengthen our national security system, to build a safer, more diverse and more inclusive New Zealand. With respect to the 15 March 2019 attack in Christchurch, this has been the subject of a Royal Commission of Inquiry, which is the highest form of independent inquiry available in New Zealand. This Inquiry delivered a comprehensive set of recommendations, including steps to strengthen national security, which the Government has accepted. These are in the process of being implemented in the fullest way possible.
What terrorist organisations are proscribed by the New Zealand Government?
A: New Zealand is committed to doing its part to fight the international menace that is terrorism, and designations are one of the tools we have to support global efforts to ensure New Zealand and New Zealanders are neither the source nor the target of terrorism. Our terrorism legislation provides a robust framework for designating terrorist entities. This includes those entities currently listed under relevant UN Security Council resolutions (including ISIS and al-Qaeda), and a range of non-UN listed entities which New Zealand has decided to designate to support global, regional and domestic counter-terrorism efforts. This list of entities includes the individual who carried out the 2019 attack on Christchurch mosques.
There is also a growing concern not only of Islamic extremism, but white supremacy in New Zealand and many countries in the West. How is New Zealand dealing with this growing problem?
A: New Zealand’s approach to countering terrorism and violent extremism aims to bring our Nation together to protect all New Zealanders. Our vision is for a diverse, inclusive and secure country where all people feel safe, have equal access to opportunities and do not experience discrimination. Prevention is our priority. We work collectively to build resilient communities and families and address the underlying causes of violent extremism. New Zealand is focused on combating violent extremism in all its forms - whether that is motivated by a racist ideology, a religious one or anything else. We have four core elements to our work. First: understanding the threat and ensuring we have the capabilities to detect it. Second: working with all our partners – across New Zealand and internationally. Third: preventing future terrorism and extremism through building a diverse, resilient, inclusive society. And Fourth: responding to and recovering from major incidents in a way which protects and supports victims, and focuses on disengagement, rehabilitation and reintegration of those who pose a violent extremism risk.
According to news reports, the attacker claimed asylum due to his treatment in Sri Lanka? Is that true? If so why didn’t the New Zealand Government check on his claims for credibility?
A: I can’t comment in detail on an individual’s asylum claim, but the Prime Minister has made clear that New Zealand authorities have worked through an extensive process over a long period of time, and that his refugee status was decided by a independent tribunal body of the New Zealand Government.
The Government of Sri Lanka has approached New Zealand to assist in the probe of the knife attacker. Does this mean there will be a security surveillance dialogue with Sri Lanka to keep religious extremists away?
A: It has been heartening to see, in the days since the terrorist attack, the people and governments of Sri Lanka and New Zealand come together. We have greatly appreciated the many messages of solidarity and goodwill that Sri Lankan leaders, people and organisations have sent our way. And we have been grateful for the constructive exchanges we have had with Sri Lankan authorities since last week’s attack. New Zealand is committed to working closely with all of our international partners, including Sri Lanka, to counter terrorism and address the root causes of violent extremism. When it comes to security collaboration, one of the purposes of the newly established New Zealand High Commission in Colombo is to ensure that the security systems of our two countries work as closely together as they can and should. We will be working hard with our Sri Lankan partners to make sure that happens.
Sri Lanka has suggested a deradicalisation programme for religious extremists. Does New Zealand have such programmes?
A: Deradicalisation, or as we call it in New Zealand disengagement, is critical to our comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. We take a holistic, integrated approach to disengaging identified persons of concern from violent extremism and terrorism, to reduce the likelihood of them causing harm in the future.
The CID has questioned close associates of the knife attacker. Did the attacker live all by himself in New Zealand? Are there any new leads?
A: I won’t get into the details of the attacker’s life in New Zealand, as it’s really for the law enforcement to do that as and when appropriate. What I can say is that this individual was known to New Zealand authorities for some years.
How do you respond to criticisms about New Zealand’s lack of information sharing about this case with Sri Lankan authorities, and the threat posed to Sri Lanka’s national security?
A: New Zealand is firmly committed to international cooperation to counter terrorist and violent extremist threats. New Zealand and Sri Lanka have enjoyed decades of cooperation, including on security matters. That will continue in the period ahead, and we look forward to working together to strengthen this aspect of our relationship. It is important to recognise that this was a case of an attacker who acted alone, who was well known to New Zealand authorities, had been in custody for some time, and was under heavy surveillance at the time of the attack. As has been reported, the New Zealand Government was not aware of any information that would indicate any imminent threat to Sri Lanka. The case was also subject to suppression orders put in place by the Courts, and was under consideration by the independent Immigration and Protection Tribunal – all of which placed legal restrictions on information sharing. Had there been information at any point to suggest a credible threat to Sri Lanka’s national security, New Zealand would have prioritised its cooperation with Sri Lankan authorities to respond to the threat and shared whatever information we could have lawfully shared.
As Commonwealth countries, Sri Lanka and New Zealand have enjoyed bilateral ties for decades. How is New Zealand supporting Sri Lanka in its fight against COVID-19?
A: Sri Lanka and New Zealand have been good friends since the very beginning of Sri Lanka’s life as an independent country. We played a significant role in the Colombo Plan back then, and the opening last month of our High Commission in Colombo is a testament to New Zealand’s long-term commitment to Sri Lanka. In terms of COVID-19, we have contributed US$ 12 million to the COVAX facility which provides free, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines to 92 lower- and middleincome countries. We are pleased that Sri Lanka has been a beneficiary of that.
What is the trade and economic relationship between New Zealand and Sri Lanka like, and how might it change in the future?
A: Traditionally, our bilateral trading relationship has been about commodities: New Zealand mostly bringing dairy products into Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka bringing primarily tea and rubber to New Zealand. Lately, that trade has been worth about half a billion dollars a year – so quite a significant trade. But we would like to expand and diversify this trade and economic relationship, and will be working with Sri Lankan authorities on that. We’re excited that a broad range of New Zealand companies in a good number of sectors are interested in expanding their Sri Lankan interests. These sectors include aviation, education, value-added food and beverage, and agri-technology. New Zealand companies are well placed to contribute to Sri Lanka’s economic recovery across a range of sectors. I know, from my engagement with Sri Lankan businesses here, that there’s plenty of interest in the other direction too.
New Zealand was the best example in arresting the COVID-19 spread. Sri Lanka started well, but now over 10,000 persons have fallen victim to the virus. What advice do you give to the Sri Lankans and where have we failed in arresting the spread of the virus in your opinion?
A: COVID-19 has been a harrowing experience for people the world over, and that’s true in Sri Lanka as it is in New Zealand. Everything about life has changed because of COVID. The human, social and economic cost around the world is enormous, tragic and it’s going to take some time before we can all get past it. To date, New Zealand has been able to keep its caseload and death toll low by international standards. But we are in the middle of our latest outbreak at the moment, and the Delta variant is a very tricky adversary. In terms of Sri Lanka’s position, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to give advice. Each country has its own particular circumstances, and must find the right balance of measures to combat the impact of this virus. As an international community, though, we have a shared interest in ensuring that humanity is vaccinated as quickly as possible in the period ahead and in working together to minimise the social, cultural and economic impacts of this pandemic.